The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) expresses deep concern over the SC ruling in Hitesh Verma’s case in which the provision of the SC and ST (Protection of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has been quashed on the grounds that the casteist abuse and slur happened within the four walls of a dwelling. Thisjudgment followed an earlier 2008 SC ruling in Swaran Singh’s case. According to Section 3(1)(r) of the Act, anyone who ‘intentionally insults or intimidates’ with ‘intent to humiliate’ an SC/ST person in any place within public view commits an offence. The FIR in Hitesh Verma’s case had alleged that for the past six months, the complainant had not been allowed to work on her fields and the three accused had been making casteist abuses/slurs against them and used to give them death threats. The FIR further alleged that on the 10th of December 2019, the three accused illegally entered her building and started hurling casteist abuses at her husband and her and giving death threats to them and took away construction material lying there.
The Supreme Court held that since the alleged casteist abuses and slurs had not occurred within public view, no offence under the SC-ST Act was made out. Relying on the Swaran Singh case, it held that while casteist abuses in a private place with a public audience is included within the purview of Section 3(1)(r) of SC-ST Act,there was no person who belonged to the public who was present on the scene. In doing so the Court completely overlooked the fact that the labourers were present on the scene. The Supreme Court also disregarded the fact that there had been continued violence on the woman for a period of six months prior to the incident and remarked that since the possession of the property of the complainant was in dispute before a Civil Court, any dispute around this would not disclose an offence under the Act “unless the victim is abused, intimated or harassed only for the reason that she belongs to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe”.
In our understanding, this interpretation is wrong since the manner in which the accused tried to dispossess the complainant by using casteist abuse and physical violence cannot be seen as not being influenced by the complainant’s caste and is the manner in whichthe upper castes wield power over SCs and STsand browbeat them in such cases with impunity.
The SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was legislated after a long struggle for decades to address the specific nature of burgeoning hate caste crimes which the then existing provisions of the penal code and the protection of the civil rights act failed to address. Since then, several attempts at diluting the implications of the Act have been at work through the Courts and Legislature. In 2018, the SC citing “misuse of the Act” put a condition of a preliminary inquiry before the registration of the FIR even though this violated the basic principle of criminal law laid down in Lalita Kumari case that it is mandatory to register an FIR.
In any event, AIDWA feels that any casteist slur and abuse is an affront to the dignity of an individual and is made to insult and intimidate whether it is in a private or a public place. For instance, several domestic workers interact with their employers in private spaces and can be easily subjected to casteist abuse and harassment to humiliate them. AIDWA, therefore, demands the removal of the words “within public view” from Section 3(1)(r) of the SC-ST Act. In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court judgment in Hitesh Verma should be reviewed.